28 d’agost 2007

The viability of an independent Catalan State (I)

I publish an article appeard in 2003 in The Bologna Center Journal of International Affairs by Josep Desquens, a Catalan economist. It sweeps away all the fears some Catalans have when thinking about an independent Catalonia. Can it be viable? The answer is here. I did cut the article in four posts because it is too long to publish it in just one. The pics included are mine, they are not in the original article.

By Josep Desquens

"The life of the Catalan is an act of continuous affirmation [...] It is because of this that the defining element of the Catalan psychology is not reason, as for the French; metaphysics, as for the Germans; empiricism, as for the English; intelligence, as for the Italians; or mysticism, as for the Castilians. In Catalonia, the primary feature is the desire to be."-- Jaume Vicens Vives, Catalan historian

Many citizens of Flanders in Belgium, Scotland in the United Kingdom and Catalonia in Spain do not consider themselves merely part of a region but an independent nation that has no state of its own. Greater self-rule is the central objective of the so-called nationalist political parties characteristic of these European regions and the possibility of secession has been part of their politics for years. Yet while secession is mentioned as one option for the future, mainstream parties perceive it as a utopian formula rather than a viable alternative. This results partly from a genuine allegiance to the existing states by many of these regions' residents, but also from the fear of the unknown and a surprising lack of information about the economic costs of remaining part of these states and the potential economic benefits of independence.

Current conventional wisdom in the European Union and the United States sees the issue of secession as something outdated or even dangerous. Mainstream politicians, diplomats and academics tend to present it as a senseless option at a moment in history where the focus is building a united Europe and a free-trade world. The thought of the wars in the former Yugoslavia makes many fear such an option. However, the situation in Catalonia, Flanders or Scotland is not comparable - these stateless nations are well-established democratic societies that respect human rights and free-market economies within the European Union. Thus, Catalans, Flemish or Scots cannot ignore that full political independence remains a serious option for them. The desire for secession needs to be objectively analyzed and the costs and benefits properly weighed.

Many Catalans do not consider themselves Spanish but exclusively Catalan. Such feelings raise eyebrows in other parts of Spain, Europe and elsewhere, but are widely accepted as legitimate within Catalonia. The key goal of Catalonia's main political party, Convergència i Unió (CiU), which has governed the region for more than twenty years, is to gain higher levels of self-government. It defines itself as Catalan nationalist (or Catalanist) and frequently refers to the Catalans' right to political self-determination. With this party's support, the Catalan Parliament declared fourteen years ago that it would not renounce this right. Yet it does not seek full independence from Spain. Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), which does publicly support full independence and is Catalonia's fourth largest political force (it is the third in 2007), held about 9 percent (the 16 percent in 2007) of the vote in the last regional elections. Polls on the issue reflect that a much higher percentage of the population sympathize with the idea of secession.

In Spain, this is a hot topic. The Autonomous Government of the Basque Country unveiled a "Sovereignty Plan" last year which calls for a referendum on the issue of self-determination once there is an end to the violence of ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), the region's separatist terrorist group. The central Spanish government in Madrid is strongly opposed, arguing that the Spain's Constitution does not foresee the right to self-determination for any part of the country. Recently, CiU made public a plan to reform Catalonia's Statute of Autonomy that reaffirms the right to self-determination, claims Catalan representation in various international organizations and demands sole control of areas such as immigration and tax collection, among many others, which are today responsibility of the Spanish central government.

There are broadly three main arguments for the independence of Catalonia. The first is that since the Catalan cultural and language is neither understood nor accepted in Spain (and so neither protected nor fostered), the best way forward is an independent state. This results from three centuries of linguistic and cultural discrimination, which reached its pinnacle under Gen. Francisco Franco's 36-year dictatorship. The second one says that a well-defined political entity such as Catalonia should be mature enough to govern itself with its own voice in the European Union or the United Nations in order to address the problems specific to it. Finally, there is the belief that Catalonia would be better off economically by seceding. In particular, proponents of the last argument refer to the fact that Catalonia pays much more into Spain's central treasury than it gets back (subsequently referred to here as the fiscal imbalance) and to the excessive bureaucracy resulting from the current administrative arrangements.

The economic arguments are contested. Some believe an independent Catalonia would not be economically viable; others argue that it does not make sense given that globalization and the European Union have brought about the blurring of borders. But only a few seem willing to undertake a serious economic assessment of an eventual secession, as this has become a "politically incorrect" issue in Spanish politics.

The purpose of this article is to show that there are sound economic and administrative arguments supporting the case for Catalan independence and that there are no objective reasons to believe that a Catalan state could not be viable from an economic perspective. Secession would mean getting rid of the current fiscal imbalance with Spain, which has seriously hampered Catalonia's growth and endangers its future economic performance. It would also mean simplifying the current oversized bureaucracy and having a direct voice in international forums. Moreover, I will argue that the processes of economic globalization and European integration are creating a new reality that reinforces, rather than weakens, the case for secession. Overall, evidence indicates that from an economic perspective, independence is the best solution for the people of Catalonia presently.

I will not touch upon the cultural arguments and I will not discuss whether an independent Catalonia would be morally legitimate or historically justified. Though there are strong historical and cultural arguments that justify going it alone, one could also argue that there are many others that support being part of Spain.